In the News

New federal rules could hurt immigrants and state economy

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

A federal rule that puts new limits on immigrants considered likely to become overly dependent on government benefit programs could end up costing Hawaii’s economy as much as $127 million, according to a recent analysis.

A divided Supreme Court recently allowed the Trump administration to enforce its controversial “public charge” rule that allows federal officials to deny entry into the U.S. to anyone who might need government aid.

The controversial rule was set to become law in October but was challenged in court by immigrant rights groups and a number of states, including Hawaii.

In the past the federal government considered only cash benefits, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, to determine who was likely to become a public charge.

However, last month’s 5-4 vote by the court’s conservative majority means anyone using or likely to use Medicaid, food stamps and other safety net programs would face greater scrutiny from immigration officials.

The Trump administration has defended the rule as a way to ensure immigrants remain financially self-sufficient, but critics, such as U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, say it’s really aimed at closing the door on poor immigrants.

“This rule was intended to confuse and scare immigrant families, and it’s working,” Hirono said on social media after the ruling. “The people who will suffer the most are the poor and vulnerable among us — particularly children.”

Hirono has introduced legislation to prohibit the Trump administration from using federal funding to implement the rule.

Ever since the proposal was first leaked to the press in 2017, critics predicted it would have a chilling effect on legal immigrant families who are eligible for public assistance, causing them to disenroll from, or not apply for, benefits out of fear it would jeopardize their family’s immigration status.

Now a new analysis from Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law &Economic Justice has found a 38% reduction since 2016 in the number of these children receiving Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

“It’s not proof, but these numbers seem to indicate there was a sharp drop-off for SNAP by noncitizens,” said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst for Hawai‘i Appleseed.

In a report, the Kaiser Family Foundation said up to 4.7 million people could withdraw from Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program if the rule went into effect, putting their health at risk.

The New York-based Fiscal Policy Institute analyzed the rule’s affect on the country as a whole and has estimated that 110,000 people in Hawaii will experience a “chilling” effect. Among that population: 40,000 Hawaii minors, of whom 30,000 are U.S. citizens by birth.

In addition, the institute said states are at risk of losing tens of millions in federal dollars. In considering only health and nutrition supports — the largest benefits targeted by the rule — the organization projected a 25% drop in enrollment in Hawaii and a resulting $66 million loss of federal funds.

Woo said not only will there be fewer federal dollars coming to Hawaii, but there will be fewer program participants spending at grocery stores and other food retailers.

“Hospitals, doctors and nurses will lose income due to a reduction in Medicaid usage. Many other businesses will lose revenue as immigrant families that struggle to make up for the lost nutrition and health care benefits shift spending priorities,” Woo said.

The Fiscal Policy Institute estimated a loss to Hawaii’s gross domestic product by as much as $127 million, with losses of 865 jobs and $10 million in state tax revenue.

The court complaint that state Attorney General Clare Connors signed says the rule would boost homelessness and hunger and result in health coverage losses.

“This federal rule increases the challenges already faced by vulnerable members of our community,” Connors said in a statement. “The government should not intimidate residents who are legally present and who are in short term need of assistance.”

Aim higher for Hawaii’s minimum wage

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

Hawaii’s minimum wage places it somewhere near the middle of the pack among states, which is not an optimal position for a place where it is so expensive to live.

This concerns lawmakers, too, and they seem willing to boost the hourly rate from the current $10.10 to $13 by 2024. There seems to be some employer support for the idea — with positive testimony coming from key businesses and associations.

That is somewhat encouraging. The last series of stepped increases in the Hawaii minimum wage topped out two years ago. Meanwhile, other high-cost states, such as California (already up to $13), New York ($11.80) and Washington ($13.50), continued moving up. It’s good to see some upward mobility here as well.

But advocates have concluded that landing in four years on a $13 hourly rate still falls well short of Hawaii’s need, and they make a persuasive argument for raising the minimum further. The legislation at issue, House Bill 2541, is set to cross over this week to the Senate for continued hearings.

Just how much room there is for a further increase may hinge on giving the employers, especially smaller businesses, some flexibility to meet the minimum requirement, perhaps with a mix of pay and health benefits.

Such a structure should discourage employers from trying to save money by cutting back hours and cutting out health insurance, an outcome that would serve no worker.

HB 2541 is part of the broad-based initiatives being pushed by Democratic leadership to bolster the economic security of Hawaii’s poor and working people, many of whom continue to struggle to cover basic expenses.

The package also includes bills aimed at lowering the cost of early- learning and childcare programs over time and supports affordable housing, in a push to address two of the biggest financial burdens for the average household. These are longer-term campaigns, with results to come with time.

For the near term, the mission to help families make ends meet is being addressed by increasing pay packets and reducing the bite that taxes take out of them.

In addition to the pay hike, HB 2541 includes tax relief. It would make the state’s earned income tax credit (EITC) refundable. For individual taxpayers earning income less than $30,000 a year, it would increase the refundable credit for food and excise taxes to $150 multiplied by the number of qualified exemptions the taxpayer claims.

The EITC and the food/tax credit enhancements do help on the margins to give lower-income taxpayers some help. But, as advocates argue, they do not come close to the financial boost that a more substantial minimum wage would bring.

The entire rationale of the minimum wage merits a close look. Critics maintain that enforced minimum pay rates can result in job losses, as labor costs represent the lion’s share of a business’ budget, meaning that companies will cut their staff rosters and reduce workers’ hours to control expenses.

Increased costs are passed on to consumers through rising prices, curbing growth. Better than minimum-wage hikes are tax credits such as the EITC.

However, these arguments run counter to what’s already evident. Job losses have not been linked to past raises. The EITC is here but has not sufficiently offset the poverty levels witnessed in the spread of homelessness and social ills. Multiple studies have documented that nearly half the population barely gets by.

Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, the nonprofit advocacy group, asserts that $17 comes closer to what single people need to “meet their basic needs,” citing data from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

That is the minimum that Appleseed wants to see in place by 2025, adding $8,000 in annual income for full-time work — much more than most low-wage taxpayers here would receive in tax credits.

Of course, that is a steep climb especially for smaller businesses, already worried about the current coronavirus outbreak impacts and other economic upheavals.

Even keeping that in mind, there should be a way to nudge the minimum wage upwards, beyond $13 per hour. That should be the aim of ongoing negotiations between the House and Senate.

For example, one proposal last session would give a break to employers who do provide health benefits under the state’s Prepaid Health Care Act, a benefit required for all employees working at least 20 hours weekly. The pay rates for them could be lower than the top-tier minimum wage required of those that hire only part-time workers.

This structure could be reconsidered to give leeway to employers providing the crucial benefit, rather than driving them to cut employees and hours.

Legislative leaders and Gov. David Ige deserve support for taking this multipronged approach to an economic rescue plan. As the second half of the session begins, decisionmakers have to keep eyes on that prize, an assist that many Hawaii families have long needed, just to get by.

Minimum wage hike bill advances, but critics say it’s still not enough

Hawaii News Now·

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) – A bill to hike Hawaii’s minimum wage is moving to the full house, but critics say it still falls short of what a person needs to live in the 50th state.

Even the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism says so, according to those critics.

“According to DBEDT, somebody in 2020 who’s single with no children needs over 17 dollars an hour to be self-sufficient. So our own state is telling us it’s 17 dollars or more in 2020,” said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst with the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

The bill approved by the house Finance and Labor committees would raise the wage from the current $10.10 an hour to $11 in 2021, $12 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, and $13 dollars in 2024.

“If it takes 17 dollars an hour just to survive and everyone agrees that it does, then why aren’t we requiring employers to pay it?” asked the Rev. David Gerlach. He’s the rector at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Palama, which is surrounded by lower income residents.

“I have a neighborhood where I have working dads, full time, raising two kids, living in ten foot by ten foot apartments, and they’re paying 750 dollars a month for that, and they’re still not getting by full-time,” said Gerlach.

But lawmakers say pushing the minimum wage too high could have a negative impact on businesses — and workers.

“We’re worried that employers may react by then counter-productively reducing an employee’s hours, or potentially reducing their benefits,” said state Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, who chairs the House Labor and Public Employment Committee.

Johanson also stressed that some of those benefits are available only to workers in Hawaii.

“In no other sate in the union are employers in the private sector mandated to fully cover a worker’s health care insurance premium, and that’s a great benefit. It’s the financial underpinning of our system,” he said.

Woo countered that the last big minimum wage hikes in Hawaii between 2015 and 2018 didn’t have a negative impact on local business.

“It went from $7.25 to $10.10, and during that time our unemployment rate dropped to record lows, the lowest in the country. And we also added a lot of jobs in the restaurant sectors.– for example — which is one of the sectors that’s really affected by the minimum wage,” said Woo.

The measure has the support of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, which has opposed several previous minimum wage hike proposals. That’s because the bill also includes tax relief measures, including making the state earned income tax refundable and permanent, and increasing the refundable food/excise tax credit.

“It would be up to 70-plus million dollars of new additional tax relief for working class individuals and working class families,” said Johanson. “So this is not just the minimum wage worker. This is a lot of middle class families that are struggling.”

Gerlach says, however, that increasing the minimum wage could decrease costs elsewhere.

“If you’re running something called a business, and you can’t afford to pay your workers a liveable wage, you don’t have a business, you have a hobby,” he said. “And taxpayers shouldn’t be supporting those hobbies through welfare and food stamps and things of that nature,”

“”I can understand that people would like it to be higher, but 13 dollars is still an increase over what it is now,” said Johanson.

The measure now heads to the full house for consideration.

Hawai‘i Home to Lowest School Breakfast Participation in US

Big Island Now·

Hawai‘i now holds the dubious honor of having the lowest school breakfast participation in the country, according to a release from the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center For Law & Economic Justice.

According to the newest national School Breakfast Scorecard, released Thursday by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), 25,476 low-income children in Hawai‘i participated in the National School Breakfast Program on an average school day in 2018-2019. That represents a decrease of 2.7%, or 1,047 students, from the previous year.

FRAC’s report finds that fewer than 40 low-income children in Hawai‘i ate school breakfast for every 100 that received free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2018–2019 school year. This is far below the national average of 57.5 per 100.

The top two states, West Virginia and Vermont, had 83 and 70, respectively, out of 100 of their low-income lunch students also getting school breakfast. If Hawai‘i can increase its rate to 70%, nearly 20,000 additional low-income keiki would receive the benefits of school breakfast, and the state would receive an additional $5.8 million per year in federal funds, the release said.

Hawaiʻi’s First Lady Dawn Amano-Ige, a former public-school teacher and vice principal, is encouraging students to start their day with breakfast at school.

“We know it’s hard to concentrate when you’re hungry, and when students eat breakfast, they’re ready to learn and more likely to succeed,” she said.

The School Breakfast Scorecard also describes best practices to boost school breakfast participation. The first is utilizing the Community Eligibility Program (CEP), which allows high-poverty schools to offer school meals free of charge to all students.

The Hawaiʻi Department of Education has been proactive and effective in recent years at expanding the number of CEP schools across the state, the release said. Hawaiʻi went from seven CEP schools in the 2015-16 school year, to 30 schools in 2016-17, and on to 52 schools in 2017-18.

Is An $868,000 Home Affordable? Hawaii Senators Say No

Honolulu Civil Beat·

Lawmakers in the Hawaii Senate Housing Committee on Tuesday rejected a core element of a major housing proposal backed by Gov. David Ige and House and Senate leadership that aims to provide affordable housing near the rail line.

The problem is the so-called affordable housing wouldn’t actually be affordable, according to Sen. Stanley Chang, who chairs the committee.

Under Senate Bill 3104, the state would issue 99-year leases for projects that make 50% of units available to households making 140% of the area median income and invest $275 million in housing infrastructure. A family of four making 140% of AMI could afford a home that costs $867,900. The other half of the units would be market rate.

“I will never accept a bill that has 140% of AMI when we’re talking about free state land and free taxpayer-funded infrastructure,” Chang said. “That is a pure giveaway to developers, and it’s completely irresponsible.”

Senate Housing Committee Chair Stanley Chang made major changes to a bill championed by House and Senate leaders and Gov. Ige.

Chang’s committee advanced an amended version of the bill that would require 100% of units to be available to those making 80% of AMI and below.

For families of four making 80% of AMI, an affordable home would be $495,900, according to data from the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation. For an individual, that would be $347,400.

The original version of the bill, which is still under consideration in the House as HB2542, received strong support from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, the business community and the construction industry.

But it also generated passionate pushback from affordable housing advocates and other groups, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“The units must be affordable for the 75% of Oahu’s households needing homes who earn less than $75,000 a year,” said Evelyn Aczon Hao, president of the nonprofit Faith Action for Community Equity, in a statement last month.

“A family earning $75,000 a year can afford a home priced at about $400,000.”

In testimony, Hawaiian Community Assets said the bill was pitched to the public as a solution for residents living paycheck to paycheck but that it fails to address that population’s housing needs.

“According to the most recent Hawaii Housing Planning Study, 52% of the housing units we will need by 2025 must be for low-income households earning up to 80% of the HUD area median income (AMI),” the nonprofit wrote in its testimony.

The data shows a surplus of units available for those whose income is 140% of the AMI, while there is a shortfall of thousands of units at 80% AMI and below. The need is especially great for those making 30% of AMI and below, the data shows.

“We should not be designating homes as ‘affordable’ that are built for people earning six-figure incomes,” the IMUAlliance, an anti-sex trafficking group, testified.

In remarks on Tuesday, Chang said it’s in everyone’s interest to address these community concerns now.

“Without winning the hearts and minds of people, development projects can cross their T’s and dot all their I’s and win every lawsuit, but can be held up by the people of Hawaii who sincerely love the community as it stands today and will physically block development with their own bodies,” he said.

Senators Laura Thielen, Dru Mamo Kanuha and Sharon Moriwaki voted in support of the amendments.

“It addresses the concerns in a meaningful way but still allows us to move forward,” Thielen said.

Gavin Thornton, executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said Chang’s amendment is a major improvement, but it could benefit from further discussion to ensure the income restriction isn’t too rigid.

“It might also be helpful to have more flexibility that would allow you to have a few units that target higher-income households in exchange for securing deeper affordability that provides housing for lower-income households,” he said.

Chang said the AMI level would be used to price the units, not restrict buyers, so the communities would be “mixed income.”

The bill faces another vote in the Senate Water and Land Committee, chaired by Sen. Kai Kahele, on Wednesday at 1:17 p.m. in conference room 229.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Rep. Tom Brower, who chairs the House Committee on Housing, were not immediately available to comment on Chang’s amendments.

Let’s not roll back on Hawaii schools’ healthy lunch strides

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

School lunch sometimes gets a bad rap, but as a nation, we’ve come a long way since the “ketchup as a vegetable” controversy of the 1980s. For many of Hawaii’s children, school is the only place where they have access to healthy, well-rounded, nutritious meals. In fact, research shows that, in most cases, school lunch is healthier than a home-packed lunch.

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration undermined this access by again proposing roll-backs to school nutrition standards. The current standards — put in place as part of Michelle Obama’s efforts to reform school food — require that children are served at least five different varieties of vegetables each week: dark leafy greens, red/orange vegetables, “starchy” (includes taro and poi) and “other” (‘ulu/breadfruit falls in this category).

The proposed rule would keep these categories — but lower the amount of red/orange and “other” vegetables required, paving the way for districts to opt for white potatoes in place of more nutrient-dense veggie options.

The rule also reduces the fruit requirement for breakfast served outside the cafeteria from one cup to a half cup. This would apply to any schools working to implement a grab-and-go or breakfast-in-the-classroom model, which is one of the key initiatives being championed by Hawaii’s first lady, Dawn Amano-Ige.

These changes aren’t the first assault on healthier school meals by this administration. In 2018, it removed the 50% whole grain requirement, allowed low-fat chocolate milk (only non-fat chocolate milk was allowed previously), and softened the sodium restrictions.

The good news here in Hawaii is that our Department of Education (HIDOE) is one of those “program operators” who aren’t backing down. HIDOE’s School Food Services Branch (which oversees meals for all 256 public schools in the state) is committed to maintaining the higher standards set forth in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act for whole grain, red/orange and other vegetables, and flavored milk.

In fact, HIDOE’s food branch has been ahead of the curve with the whole grain requirement, switching from hapa rice (half white, half brown) to 100% brown rice in 2016. Early anecdotes of Hawaii students dumping their brown rice have been replaced with stories about kids learning to love brown rice and requesting it at home.

Still, under the federal administration’s proposed new rule, other schools outside of the HIDOE school food system (such as public charter schools) would be free to abandon the healthier standards.

The reason for the rollbacks, the administration says, is because kids don’t like the food now that it is healthy, and much of it is being thrown away.

The problem with this argument is this: What parent doesn’t understand the perpetual struggle of getting their children to eat their vegetables? Sure, kids might eat more if they are presented with more white bread, white rice and white potatoes. But with adolescent obesity rates in Hawaii remaining steady at around 14% for more than 15 years, there must be a better solution.

To combat food waste, rather than just give kids the junk food they want, we need to couple these healthier standards with hands-on food, agriculture and nutrition education. This includes garden-based learning, cooking demonstrations and understanding how to read ingredient labels.

Hawaii’s farm-to-school movement has been proactively training a workforce of nutrition and garden educators from preschool through higher education (P-20), bringing joy and real life learning to Hawaii’s keiki.

We need to support these efforts in any way we can. One such opportunity is through House Bill 2215, a measure that would continue and expand the work of the P-20 Agriculture Education Working Group toward regenerating Hawaii’s community food systems.

Healthy school meals, school gardens and hands-on education are a trio of interventions that together form a critical component of our children’s health and safety net programs. They reduce food insecurity and have been associated with improved health and academic outcomes.

We need to stand up to the Trump administration’s misguided attempts to weaken nutrition standards. The proposed rule is currently open for comment until March 23, and the administration must read every comment that it gets. Please add your comment to protect children’s health today!

Working families need more relief

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

Government confronts a difficult balancing act when it tries to help working families make ends meet. The statistics about how many of Hawaii’s people struggle to do so look worse with each passing year, so plainly the safety net needs reinforcement. The current minimum hourly rate, $10.10, does not go far enough.

At the same time, their employers also struggle. Many of the smallest businesses in particular can’t afford to shoulder the entire burden of covering the mounting costs of living.

Finding the right formula for that will be the primary mission of the 2020 legislative session, as raising the minimum has been a plank of the majority Democratic Party platform, and a stated priority of leadership this session in particular. So it’s critical that negotiation happen in the coming weeks to resolve the dispute already arising over the issue.

Lawmakers will start to hear some of the complaints about their initial approach in a hearing today on House Bill 2541.

At the heart of this critique is the observation by some social-service advocates that the bill’s promised tax benefits don’t adequately compensate for the lower bump in minimum wage — to $13 hourly by 2024 — lawmakers now propose.

Instead, advocates favor phasing in a hourly minimum wage in the $15-$17 range, a proposal that, while garnering considerable support, ultimately stalled in a conference committee last session.

Along the way, last year’s measure, HB 1191, shifted several times. The bill proposed various formulas such as a $15 minimum unless employees receive health insurance, in which case the minimum drops to $12.50; and a $15 minimum, with $17 paid to public workers. The federal minimum wage is $7.25, but 90% of all minimum-wage earners get higher pay than that.

Clearly, the $13 proposed top rate in the current bill, HB 2541, represents the opening bid, with various groups countering at $17.

What bill sponsors hope to show is that the entire package of initiatives seeking to help those families in marginal financial shape — including the minimum-wage increase but also some tax reforms and assistance on affordable housing and child care — will combine to do more than a basic wage hike.

Among the groups poised to testify today, Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, gave enthusiastic support for some proposed tax changes.

One was making the earned income tax credit refundable, meaning that qualifying taxpayers receive the full amount of the credit, regardless of their actual tax liability. Also, the sunset for the credit has been eliminated so that it will be an enduring benefit.

In addition, the credit for the excise tax paid on food was already refundable but the bill would increase the maximum to $150 per exemption.

The problem is that it would zero out once income reaches $30,000 annually, according to the Appleseed testimony, which would cut many people in need out of that benefit. The organization rightly gave preference to existing law, which instead phases out the credit gradually as earnings increase.

There is variability across different household types: individuals, single parents, married couples with children. But in general the cash value of the credits is far below what a more generous minimum wage would yield — hundreds of dollars as opposed to thousands.

The Legislature is correctly trying to thread a needle by raising the minimum wage to at least narrow the gap from the income side, while reducing what drains away in taxation at the other end. Compromise here will be essential.

The hope that once a middle path is settled, families will be able to stand on firmer financial ground.

A Dream Deferred: A week after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the war on the poor continues

Maui Time·

“The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent… The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the need for a guaranteed annual income, Aug. 16, 1967

“Are we willing to say as a society, that someone with zero skills but who is willing to work 40 hours at something – a plantation worker comes to mind – is entitled to be paid enough to make ends meet here? If so, then why did many of us bust our butts trying to acquire marketable skills?” – President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii Tom Yamachika in a Maui News column, Jan. 18, 2020

If there’s one thing you can almost admire about Tom Yamachika, it’s his audacity to say the quiet part loud no matter how depraved. Implying that imported plantation workers deserved the oppressive working conditions they endured, and questioning workers’ rights to dignified lives the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day – well, that takes… a special kind of person.

For all his elitist hand-wringing and grasping arguments, though, there is one thing about Yamachika’s Jan. 18 column “What really is a minimum wage?” that I am thankful for: the clear articulation of a disregard and disdain for the poor which appears at all levels of government. It seems we are no longer engaged in the War on Poverty envisioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

Rather, it’s War on the Poor.

US Supreme Court Upholds Trump’s New ‘Public Charge’ Rule

On Monday, the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow the Trump Administration to enforce a rule which makes it harder for poor immigrants to be granted green cards or visas. The restriction allows the denial of immigrant visas if a person is deemed a “public charge,” or someone who uses or is likely to use public assistance programs. That part’s nothing new. However, Trump’s rule change expands the previous definition of public assistance from only meaning cash assistance to now include Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

So far the effect has been “chilling,” reported the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice Monday. “There is much anecdotal evidence that the rumors of this new public charge rule have caused a ‘chilling’ effect among immigrant families since 2017, when it was first leaked to the media,” the organization stated. “News reports from across the country describe how some immigrant families have decided to forgo all government benefits – even if they and their children were eligible for and sorely needed them – to avoid the potential negative consequences of the new public charge rule.”

“Between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, there was a 9 percent drop in SNAP participation among citizens in Hawaiʻi, as would be expected in an improving economy,” Hawai‘i Appleseed added. “However, alarmingly, SNAP participation dropped much more sharply for non-citizens – by 33 percent over that same time period. In other words, over 5,300 more eligible Hawaiʻi residents may have gotten SNAP benefits in FY2018 if the public charge rule had not been announced in early 2017.”

For Hawai‘i’s children of non-citizens, the decline in SNAP participation was a drastic 38 percent.

Civil Cafe 2020 Legislative Preview Rehashes Minimum Wage, Homelessness

Hawaii Reporter·

The most useful takeaway at Wednesday’s 2020 Civil Beat Legislative Preview were the words of Rep. Cynthia Thielan, who has announced that she is leaving the House after 30 years of service to Hawaii. “The best way to reach out is to come to Committee hearings and testify on bills,” she said. “Show up in person to change legislation. Explain your position. Don’t just read… Speak from your heart.”

As a reporter for over 30 years, I have seen the effect of heartfelt testimony; she is right.

The panel included Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell, who covers the state legislature (and who did a darn good job of covering this weekend’s tragic police shooting) and Civil Beat Political Editor Chad Blair, acting as facilitator. Gavin Thornton, executive director of Hawai’i Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, and the Rep. Cynthia Thielen.

Blair kicked off the discussion musing about the unexpected unity among the majority members of both the House and Senate to support legislation to raise the minimum wage to $13/hour, improving schools, create more affordable housing and fight homelessness – all issues critical to the future of Hawaii.

Keohokalole took advantage of the opportunity to address the State’s crisis of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction. He expressed his frustration with the the cycle of substance abuse, jail and hospitalizations – which usually ends by returning people to the streets still homeless and addicted. “We need to reposition some of our resources; we’re burning through money for a population that needs more help than we can provide.” He wants to expand what he termed as “underutilized state health facilities,” to expand mental health opportunities.

None of that is a revelation; nor does it solve the housing crisis, the addiction problem, the wage gap or homelessness. But it sounds good.

Keohokalole also talked about decriminalizing and legalizing drugs, starting with marijuana. Possession of up to 3 grams of marijuana carries a $130 fine, though it is still not legal in Hawaii. “We have to wait for a new governor,” he said, referring to Gov. David Ige.

Ige has been clear on his position. “As long as it’s illegal from the federal government perspective, I really don’t believe we should be making it legal for recreational purposes,” he said. He neither signed nor vetoed the law, allowing it to become law.

Thielen has long promoted the cultivation of industrial (non-THC) hemp, used in the production of everything from food to cosmetics, which she mentioned during the discussion.

And while it is terrific that state legislators acknowledge that the cost of living is out of reach for most Hawaiians, it is also clear that the proposed $13/hour is not a “livable wage.” That was confirmed by Gavin Thornton, who pointed out that the current rate, $10.10/hour, is $21,000 annually. It would be $13 in 2024, which would hardly keep up with inflation.

His organization is pushing for $17 minimum wage by 2025. “Today, we need to figure out a way to make it possible to make ends meet. Nearly half [the population] don’t earn enough,” referring to the ALICE report by the Aloha United Way. Pointing to the number of people migrating off the island, he said that Hawaii has the lowest wages in the nation, when figuring in the cost of living.

Thornton encouraged the legislation’s goal of expanding early childhood education for Pre-K kids, calling it a “smart investment.” His Appleseed “Wish List” included a greater hike in the minimum wage and paid family leave to care for family members and newborns.

Thielen was asked about her position on the last piece of the rail puzzle, currently set to include seven stations between Kaka’ako and Ala Moana. “We can’t control the sea level rise,” she said, though legislators continue to approve easements for sea walls and embankments for 55-year periods. “We’re slow to recognize the emerging problem problem of the emerging sea. We’re not paying attention.” HB1611 would authorize the Board of Land and Natural Resources to provide shoreline encroachment easements for not more than 10 years to landowners with structures that encroach on the shoreline, and requires that the policy adopted considers the impact of the expected rising sea levels on the structures.

In addition to acknowledging the impact of global warming on an island state, Thielen also noted that there were no women in leadership on opening day Jan. 15. “Not a single woman up there with the leaders calling the shots… 100% men. There needs to be better equality in this building and more women elected.”

Civil Beat

Name in the News: Daniela Spoto Kittinger, Hawaii Appleseed’s anti-hunger director

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

Among the primary focus areas at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice: hunger and food insecurity. While Hawaii has made strides in addressing this issue in the growing senior population, current estimates place food insecurity in the age 60-and-older bracket at between 5% and nearly 10%. Using the more conservative estimate, more than 16,700 seniors here are at risk of going hungry.

In a just-released report, “Feeding Our Kupuna,” the nonprofit’s assessment of the problem is illustrated with three pillars: access to resources, health and nutrition, and community resilience.

Together, they serve as a “framework that acknowledges the complexity of what it takes to truly address hunger,” said Daniela Spoto Kittinger, director of anti-hunger initiatives at Hawaii Appleseed, which advocates on behalf of low-income and marginalized people, and conducts data- driven research to inform public policy and systems change.

“Traditionally, anti-hunger solutions have focused only on the access-to-resources pillar — making sure that all people have food. Little attention has been paid to how healthy that food is, or whether we see our food system as an opportunity to generate community wealth and address hunger at its root,” she said.

Kittinger, who grew up in California, holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, kinesiology and cellular biology from University of California-San Diego, and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

After undergrad commencement, she said, “I tried out a career in personal training and nutritional coaching, but became frustrated with the realization that people’s health behaviors often have more to do with their environment and the systems that they are placed in, than with their knowledge about what a healthy lifestyle looks like.”

While in grad school (2007-2009), Kittinger became fascinated with “how our food system incentivizes the proliferation of cheap, unhealthy calories.” She added, “Since then, I’ve been a passionate advocate for policies and systems that increase community ownership of the means of food production.”

Question: One of the “Feeding Our Kupuna” report’s recommended goals is to increase Hawaii’s senior enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from 50% to 70%. What accounts for under-enrollment?

Answer: Under-enrollment of seniors in SNAP is a problem in every state. … Even so, we are actually doing better than the national average of 41% of eligible seniors participating. There are a few reasons for this. The first is stigma. Seniors, perhaps more than some other populations, may be skeptical of the social image that relying on SNAP may present to others, or concerned over the implications that SNAP has on their autonomy and independence.

Another reason is mobility. While social workers and caregivers can provide at-home application assistance, there are components of the SNAP application process — such as picking up benefits cards — that require travel to SNAP centers. While the process can be delegated to authorized representatives, not all seniors have relatives who can take on this responsibility.

Finally, the application can be particularly challenging for seniors. It requires the completion of several pages of documentation, and may also require home visits by a case worker, or meetings with an additional family member or friend to help with collection of documentation.

One thing we recommend … is that the state Department of Human Services apply for a collection of waivers called the Elderly Simplified Application Project. This process would shorten the application, reduce documentation requirements through the use of “data matching” with other benefits programs, and eliminate the re-certification interview.

When Alabama put these procedures in place, they were able to gradually add over 42,000 additional senior households to the program. A similar scale increase in Hawaii would get us halfway to the 70% enrollment goal and draw down millions of additional federal dollars into our local economy.

Q: Another goal is to expand access to the federal Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)?

A: The SFMNP program offers $50 in vouchers for seniors to spend at participating farmers’ markets. The program is popular in Hawaii, serving over 9,000 seniors last year with a wait list of 400 seniors. What’s nice about it is that the eligibility requirements are much less stringent than SNAP.

It’s also an added benefit that it channels federal dollars into the local economy — a perfect example of a solution that addresses the pillar of community resilience. … Access to the program could be improved further if we subsidize with state funds. … Just $25,000 in state funding could eliminate the wait list.

Q: The report mentions “food-as-medicine.” What does that mean, exactly?

A: That nutritious food is important, not just as a part of a healthy lifestyle, but also as a critical component in our health-care system. The idea has … become more commonplace with the emergence of tangible practices, such as with “prescriptions” for fresh produce, or for home-delivered, medically tailored meals. In these models, physicians prescribe nutrient-dense foods to patients in food insecure households or with diet-related illnesses.

In other states, health-care organizations are piloting “shop with your doc” programs, where you can meet a physician at the grocery store who will help you make a shopping list, create a menu, and read food labels. The implications of these programs go beyond food access, by amplifying the message that what you eat impacts your health in very direct ways.

Funding is often the limiting factor for these programs, but that is starting to change. In the most recent Farm Bill, Congress authorized $4 million in grants for produce prescription pilot programs for each fiscal year 2019 through 2023.

Q: Regarding keiki hunger, Hawaii Appleseed is working with partners to increase participation in school breakfast offerings?

A: Research shows that students who eat breakfast perform better on tests and have a lower incidence of behavioral issues. Unfortunately, too many Hawaii students don’t get breakfast. Our state currently ranks 50th for participation rates in the National School Breakfast Program.

The good news is that there are solutions that we know work. … We have partnered with the state Department of Education (DOE) and first lady Dawn Amano-Ige, with support from national partners No Kid Hungry, the Food Research and Action Center, and local Safeway stores, to launch a program we call “Jump Start Breakfast.”

The program encourages schools to try out innovative breakfast models, such as grab-and-go, eating breakfast in the classroom, or placing a breakfast truck or kiosk where kids tend to congregate before school. Every school is different, so we encourage schools to work with their safety-and-wellness committee to discuss what might work best for them. … Last year, we tested some of these models at 10 schools … and are planning to expand to more schools across this year.

Q: Have Hawaii’s food-related challenges changed significantly over the past decade or so?

A: I’ve seen a dramatic shift in the narratives and practices around nutrition, food and agriculture in Hawaii since I first started working in the field. There have been the pioneers: MA‘O farms in Waianae and the Kohala Center come to mind. Because of them and many others, we’ve seen a resurgence in indigenous foodways, and an increase in the number of small farms and food businesses that cater to local residents and tourists than there was just 10 years ago.

The DOE is taking farm-to-school seriously, and we’ve also seen an incredible increase in the number of schools with gardens where students can learn applied nutrition.

Wealthier residents have largely driven the shift toward more local, sustainable produce, through farm-to-table restaurants and large retailers like Whole Foods. Unfortunately, low-income communities are still largely left out of the conversation, which is why it’s so important that we focus on the three pillars. …

True food justice means ensuring that everyone, including those who struggle to make ends meet, have access to the same quality, locally produced foods as those with means. … There is much more to be done, but we’ve come a long way. hunger